HOMI BHABHA- A Life Sketch

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born on 30 Oct 1909 to Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha and Meheren Pandey. His father was a lawyer and was associated with many enterprises of the Tata industrial empire. Homi Bhabha’s aunt was married to Sir Dorab Tata, son of Jamshedji Tata. He was educated at the cathedral and John canon high school, in Bombay. At the age of 15, passed the Senior Cambridge Exam and entered the Elphinstone College. At the age of 18, he was sent to Cambridge for higher Studies. He was not much interested in sports and was brilliant in his studies. He was bestowed with a musical ear. He was a voracious reader and was encouraged with many books on science, music, and art by his parents. Homi’s father was a nationalist in spirit and so were the Tatas, and this molded his attitude on many matters.

Bhabha’s yearning for physics was understandable given his intrinsic mathematical ability. However, Bhabha did complete a course in Mechanical engineering as desired by his parents before taking up a course in mathematics and passed out in first class. Bhabha won the Rouse Ball Travelling Fellowship in 1932 and this enabled him to travel to Europe. He went to Zurich to work with Pauli and then later to Rome to work with the scientist Fermi. He had a short spell with Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. Bhabha later completed PhD under the guidance of Prof. Fowler and continued his research at Cambridge.

In 1939 September, the second world war broke out and basic research activities came to a halt. He accepted an offer of Readership at the department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, which was headed by Sir C.V. Raman. Raman got a liking to Bhabha and Bhabha was elected a fellow of the Indian academy of Sciences and later elected as fellow of the Royal Society. In Raman’s words, “Bhabha is a great lover of music, a gifted artist, a brilliant engineer and an outstanding Scientist. He is the modern equivalent of Leonardo Vinci.”

Bhabha passed away suddenly  in 1966 in an air crash.

Bhabha- The Institution Builder

He was good in theory and experimentation, a rare one in those days. He felt that nuclear science had a great potential for future and approached the Sir Dorab Tata Trust, with a proposal to start an institute devoted fully to nuclear sciences. Thus, the Tata Institute of Fundamental research (TIFR) came into existence. It started in Bangalore first but was later shifted to Bombay.

After independence, Bhabha swung into action. He developed a close contact with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also keen on India getting into Frontier areas of Science and Technology. He explained to him the useful role of atomic energy, could play in independent India. The Atomic Energy Commission was set up in 1948. One should remember that US atomic Energy Commission was set up in 1945 only. The Atomic Energy Establishment was set up at Trombay in Bombay.

The year 1955 is a land mark in Bhabha’s life. Responding to a suggestion from President Eisenhower of USA, the United Nations held an international conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva. By popular acclaim Homi Bhabha was elected the President of the conference. It was indeed an unique honor for India, in the midst of countries like USA, USSR, France and Germany. This was due to the immense stature and wide popularity of Bhabha in the scientific circles in the world.

BHABHA- The Nuclear 3 Stage Visionary

Subsequently Bhabha announced the long-term plan for atomic energy in India. The first stage was to consist of reactors based on natural uranium and heavy water. While the fissile content of U235 would produce heat, the U238 would absorb a neutron and get converted to Pu 239, which is a fissile material. Using the Pu produced in the first stage, one needs to build fast breeder reactors, which have a faster rate of conversion of U238 into Pu 239. In these reactors one can also convert Th232 to fissile U 233. India has more than 50% of the world’s thorium reserves. Having Produced enough U233, the third stage was to set up thorium breeders with U 233 as the fuel. Although 60 years have passed since Bhabha pronounced the long-term plan, the Indian Atomic power programme has not deviated. This shows Bhabha’s foresight and vision.

A forward-looking decision Bhabha took was to start the Atomic Energy Training School in 1957 where young graduates in science and engineering are imparted a one year multidisciplinary training before being assigned to work in a particular part of the programme. This school has over the years supplied several thousand scientists and engineers who have carried forward the programme in all its diversity. The recruitment to the training school is  tougher than the recruitment for IAS.

BHABHA –Space Research

He felt that space research is essential to understand outer space for many purposes like meteorology and geological surveys and was able to persuade the government to include space research in the department of Atomic Energy. This was in 1961. However after his untimely death Vikram Sarabhai took over and later a separate department of space was carved out. Today Chandrayan and Mangalyaan are there to indicate India’s superiority in the space area.

BHABHA- Electronics

Bhabha was well aware of the role of electronics in all research and technology and started works in this area at TIFR. This came in handy for supporting the defence forces after the Chinese war and development of electronics for defence took prominence. Later the Department of Electronics took birth in 1966.

BHABHA- Music, Painting

As a young boy Bhabha would often go to his aunt’s house and listen to western music. He would listen for hours the music of Beethoven and Mozart. Bhabha took his violin lessons at the age of 16.After his return to India from Cambridge, he developed the taste for Indian Classical music. At Cambridge Bhabha produced several paintings for which he drew inspiration from music. He designed the cover for his college magazine. He acquired the paintings of leading painters and displayed them in the corridors of TIFR. He was able to persuade the government to permit spending a few percent of budget on artistic acquisitions.

BHABHA –Architecture

Buildings and monuments are expressions where we can show creativity. When TIFR was to be built at Bombay, Bhabha got the services of eminent American architect Helmut Bartsch. When he got down to the start of the Trombay Establishment, Bhabha invited 5 architectural firms to prepare the site plan and wanted to choose the best among them. While the finance ministry turned down his proposal, Bhabha was able to persuade Prime Minister Nehru to overrule finance. Thus was Bhabha’s personality.  The radio-chemical laboratory was architected by the well known U.S. architect who designed the Lincoln Centre in Delhi. It incorporated some elements of Mughal architecture, namely an inner courtyard with fountains, which were actually functional for cooling the water of the air-conditioning units. Two leading Italian architects helped Bhabha in preparing the master plan for the Trombay South Site. The modular laboratory building is the longest building in Asia and its architecture stands as a testimony to Bhabha’s total involvement and attention to all facets in detail.

Bhabha- Trees and Gardens

Bhabha never felt that landscaping is a luxury. He felt trees and gardens brought cheer and cool ambience to scientists. As a first step he arranged for planting over a million and half trees at Trombay, Mumbai. The landscaping was entirely Bhabha’s own creation; he used to personally spend many hours on the drawing board to arrive at the best designs. While planning roads in Trombay, it was observed that an old mango tree came in the way. While Civil engineers wanted removal of the tree Bhabha ensured that the road was constructed around the tree. He was responsible for transplanting of many trees at various laces in Mumbai. Such was his love for nature.

JRD Tata paid his tributes to Bhabha:”BHABHA was a visionary with the boldness, relentless energy and drive to convert his vision into reality. Scientist, engineer, master builder and administrator, steeped in humanities, in art and music. Homi was a truly complete man.”

(The above is an extract from the book” Bhabha and his Magnificent Obsessions”, authored by Dr G.Venkataraman, published by Universities press.)

ISBN 81 7371 007 4

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